VIEWPOINT: Populism and the spectre of Enoch Powell

VIEWPOINT: Populism and the spectre of Enoch Powell

Robbie Shilliam

The spectre of Enoch Powell has regularly been conjured in debates over multiculturalism, immigration and Brexit, not least of all in the decision by the BBC earlier this year to broadcast a reading of the famous “rivers of blood” speech on its 50th anniversary. Oftentimes, Powell is invoked as a moralistic interlocutor: one’s purported proximity to Powell is indicative of one’s degree of racism. In this contribution, I would like to take a different strategy of engagement.

I wish to approach Powell as more than a rhetorician or ideologue of racism. I also want to apprehend Powell’s influence beyond those political figures on the right who have self-avowedly embraced him. Instead, I want to engage with Powell as a capable intellectual who crafted a distinct and enduring political philosophy. In what follows, I utilize various speeches and texts of Powell in the 1960s and early 1970s in order to lay out ten fundamental premises and propositions of that political philosophy. The purpose of doing so is to help assess the degree to which the current debate owes an intellectual debt to Powell in terms of its analytical framing rather than simply its moral character.

  1. Powell not only opposed the preservation of British Empire but argued that English nationhood had never in any way been modified or changed by Empire. The “nationhood of the mother country”, asserted Powell, “remained unaltered through it all, almost unconscious of the fantastic [imperial] structure built around her” (Heffer 1998, 337).
  2. Powell apprehended English nationhood in terms of heredity. “National consciousness”, argued Powell, “is transmitted from generation to generation by a process analogous to that of inheritance. Even while it is transmitted it changes, yet remains the same” (Schofield 2015, 182). Those generations who lived through Empire were now, in its end days, coming “home” again, to “discover affinities with earlier generations of English” who had lived before the “expansion of England”. For Powell, this affective “coming home” was driven by a “curiosity of finding ourselves once more akin with the old English” (Heffer 1998, 337).
  3. In Powell’s estimation, national heredity was demonstrated by cultural character and constituted by political culture. The English man could not suffer “the safety, ease and irresponsibility of servitude”; he was bound instead to pursue “freedom… [and] the responsibilities and the opportunities, which are inseparable from it” (Powell 1970). For Powell, this orderly independence, so characteristic of the English man, was safeguarded by deference to the political culture of parliamentary sovereignty. When Henry 8th declared his imperium, Powell argued, “since then no law has been made for England outside England … and the whole subsequent history of Britain and the political character of the British people have taken their colour and trace their quality from that moment and that assertion” (Ritchie 1978, 34). Indeed, for Powell, the British nation distinguished itself in world history due to the uninterrupted longevity of its Parliament.
  4. And yet the cultural matter of English nationhood was congenitally racialized by Powell as white (Anglo-Saxon) stock. Specifically, Powell arranged the diverse populations of the British Commonwealth by reference to varying political proximities to whiteness. For instance, Powell considered Commonwealth citizenship to be a “legal fiction” created by the 1948 Nationality Act. And he bemoaned the ascription of “our nearest European neighbours” as aliens at the same time as “myriad inhabitants of independent countries in Asia, Africa and the New World were British, indistinguishable from native-born inhabitants of these islands” (Powell 1966). Moreover, Powell never presented Anglo-Saxon members of the Commonwealth as a national threat in the same way that he did “coloured immigration”. When speaking of those population groups who did not, in his estimation, wish to integrate, Powell famously proclaimed that “their colour marks them out” (Powell 2007). The English were for Powell categorically “a white nation”; a child born of Indian parents in Birmingham was not English but Indian (Powell 1970). Moreover, Powell defined the “coloured” population as including children with only one white parent, hence further demonstrating his racialization of cultural heredity (Powell 1971).
  5. Powell therefore identified the threat to English nationhood at empire’s end primarily in terms of non-white arrivals from the Commonwealth. For Powell, the “ever-increasing settlement” of such persons, especially as an English-born yet “alien element” (Powell 2007), threatened the national heredity. To be clear, Powell understood this threat primarily in terms of heredity, that is, the unsullied reproduction of the white family unit. Tellingly, Powell was especially concerned with miscegenation via the arrival of “unmarried persons” (Powell 2007); he wished them to be returned to their own kith and kin overseas. Additionally, Powell famously conjured the effect of non-white settlement in neighbourhoods in terms of “wives unable to get hospital beds in childbirth, [and] children unable to get school places..”(Powell 2007).
  6. The eugenic threat of empire, posed by immigration, was at the same time a cultural threat to the English character. “Imperial delusion”, claimed Powell, encouraged the English people to “consume what we have not produced” (Powell 1963). Such contrived dependency upon the riches garnered from empire threatened the orderly independence characteristic of the English whereby “on our own ingenuity, effort and husbandry alone depends what this nation .. can achieve and enjoy” (Powell 1963).
  7. Race relations legislation in Britain functioned as a wedge by which empire’s pathologies – even at empire’s end – were to be induced into English nationhood. For Powell, the Race Relations Act of 1968 legally supported the minoritization of the racialized majority, such that the white English were “made strangers in their own country” (Powell 2007). But not only was Powell voicing a eugenicist concern over the diminishing white stock. Race relations, for Powell, also undermined the inherited culture characteristics of the English, especially its proud tradition of orderly independence. In this regard, race relations legislation denied the English man the right to “discriminate in the management of his own affairs between one fellow citizen and another” (Schofield 2015, 213).
  8. Powell chose to frame the pursuit of social justice as an issue of racial demography rather than structural socio-economic inequality. In terms of its consequences, Powell placed redistributive economic policies in the same basket as race relations legislation (see Powell 1963). That is, both imperial decadence and welfare, for Powell, weakened the English character and the principle of orderly independence. A corollary of this argument was that Powell articulated class relations through a populist analytic. The “quite ordinary working man” referenced in the Rivers of Blood speech spoke, effectively, for “every class within [the nation]” (Powell 1963). In this respect, Powell’s choice of consistently framing social justice via a racial demography was inescapably – and intentionally – a populist framing of the grievances of the racialized majority.
  9. To question whether the “ordinary” English population could had legitimate grievances qua a racialized majority was proof of one’s elitist mendacity. Because of its intractably populist grammar, Powell presented his analytic of racial demography as a common sense to “ordinary people” who knew “without being lectured” that the nation faced first and foremost a racialized demographic challenge (Powell 1963). Powell claimed that the “enemy” had “mastered the art of establishing a moral ascendancy over his victims and destroying their good conscience” (Powell 1970). A key purpose of this conspiracy, Powell claimed, was to shut down political debate by attributing “prejudice”, “racialism” and “un-christian” sentiments to any critique of the analytics of racial demography (Powell 1970). Moreover, Powell considered the guiltiest of elites to be politicians and educationalists, especially those who argued to, the contrary that, in the global context of the late 1960s, “rioting and arson [by minorities] is due to dissatisfaction over housing and employment” (Powell 1970).
  10. For Powell, membership of the EEC was to be adjudicated by reference to this populist framework. Powell endorsed cultural and economic relationships with Europe, but not political ones. Entry into the EEC would induce a new political dependency, a replacement of the old imperial handicap. It is instructive to note that, in seeking to engender a “candid conversation” about “our own country” when his fellow politicians were too timid to do so, Powell associated his line of argument with the Ian Smith’s contemporaneous project to preserve Rhodesia’s quasi-apartheid regime against the move towards decolonization. “Let me start with a Unilateral Declaration of Independence”, stated Powell: “we do not need … to be tied up with anybody” (Powell 1969).  What was at stake in EEC membership was never, straightforwardly, British sovereignty. Powell’s Euroscepticism was part of a project set upon redeeming English nationhood from imperial and racial contaminants and dependencies.

These ten premises and propositions are linked by a clear logic that, when articulated, provides for Powell’s political philosophy. Here it is: English nationhood has a heredity that is categorically separate to its imperial history and legacies; this nationhood is constituted by the political culture of parliamentary sovereignty, demonstrated by the cultural character of orderly independence, and inherited exclusively through white (Anglo-Saxon) stock; non-white Commonwealth immigration therefore threatens the integrity of this heredity in terms of racial mixing, the diminution of reproductive potential for white families, and the corruption of English cultural character; anti-racism legislation further erodes the integrity of this heredity; hence, the threat to English nationhood can only be adequately addressed by an analytic of racial demography; moreover, to focus, analytically, on structural inequality runs the risk of delegitimizing the grievances of the racial majority by legitimizing the grievances of racial minorities; finally, political membership of the European union must also be assayed through the same analytic of racial demography and concern for the purity of English nationhood guaranteed by Parliamentary sovereignty.

Certainly, the interpretation of an intellectual project is always open to question and critique. I am, though, equally certain that any serious scholar of Powell would agree that each of the ten points I have listed are predominant – or at least important – in his political thought.

The final question, then, is this: to what extent and in what ways do current debates over ethnic diversity, multiculturalism and immigration accord to, resonate with, promote, or tacitly accept the cardinal points of Powell’s political philosophy? A series of moral arguments and policy prescriptions can, of course, be logically arrived at from these premises and propositions. But I am principally concerned with returning current debate to first principles. Moralising over metropolitan elites versus provincial communities, Fabians versus Blue Labour, or Thatcherites versus Red Tory is of secondary importance to the fact that an analytic of racial demography – however it is deployed – is fundamentally Powellite. Clarity over current political-philosophical positions will enable an even greater clarity of the political and ethical stakes at play in intellectual debate.


Heffer, Simon. 1998. Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Powell, Enoch. 1963. “The Duties of the Tory Government and Nation.” POLL 4/1/1 Speeches.
———. 1966. “Extract from Speech at the Memorial Hall, Harrow.” POLL 4/1/2 File 4.
———. 1969. “Extract from Speech to the Conservative Women’s Rally, Clacton.” POLL 4/1/2 File 4.
———. 1970. “Speech at Turves Green Girls School.” POLL 4/1/6 Speeches.
———. 1971. “Speech to the Carshalton and Banstead Young Conservatives.” POLL 4/1/7 File 4.
———. 2007. “Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ Speech.” The Telegraph, November 6, 2007, sec. Comment.
Ritchie, Richard. 1978. Enoch Powell: A Nation or No Nation? Six Years in British Politics. Kingswood: Elliot Right Way.
Schofield, Camilla. 2015. Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press.


Robbie Shilliam is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He thanks Camilla Schofield for critical comments on the article

Image: Adapted from Paul Townsend CC BY-SA 2.0

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